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The Accessible Festival Revolution

Wednesday, 12 June 2019 Written by Anna Ghislena

Photos: Educational Life

Accessibility is a word that has been bubbling under in music for years but now, hand in hand with equality, independence and inclusivity, major measures are being embraced by increasing numbers of forward-thinking festival organisers after years of ground-level work. In fact, the move to improve accessibility for deaf and disabled music fans is becoming something of a revolution.

As part of the most recent Department for Work and Pensions-sponsored Family Resources Survey, 21% of respondents reported a disability. This figure reflects working age adults, state pension age adults and children: among other things they detailed mobility impairments, mental health issues, and problems with vision and hearing. A significant number require care continuously or several times a day.

With this in mind, a music festival is not considered accessible merely because it has level ground and a larger Portaloo—it is accessible when it has met the many different needs of different people. Essential provisions must be worked into the routine strategic development of events, starting with the availability of concise online access information. This is key in determining someone’s decision to buy a ticket in the first place.

In 2018, the charity Attitude is Everything’s State of Access report, which examines the barriers faced by deaf and disabled people when trying to book tickets for live music events, found that of over 300 respondents “82% had experienced problems booking access, 79% had been put off buying gig tickets due to problems booking access, 73% had felt discriminated against when trying to book access, 11% had considered legal action”.  Some also felt things were improving over time, while the Ticketing Without Barriers Coalition has since brought together promoters, ticket outlets and organisations who have “pledged to work together to remove barriers to ticketing”.

Helpful online info for deaf and disabled fans, meanwhile, can include site descriptions, and details about raised viewing platforms for wheelchair users, those unable to stand for long periods or those who struggle with being in crowds. It should also clearly and simply allow fans to obtain details of concessionary or free tickets for carers and personal assistants, or free shuttle bus services to and from site. The presence of British Sign Language (BSL) performance interpretation, hearing loops, assistance dogs, Mobiloos and adult sized changing beds, respite and sensory spaces and wheelchair recharging points should also be documented.

Making the live music experience a reality for everyone is a focus for organisers today and will continue to be in the future. Festability, a new music festival in Kent, is geared towards accommodating the needs of deaf and disabled people and their carers. As parents of disabled young adults, organisers Carrie Wood and Vanessa Oakes told us that going to festivals in the past presented many obstacles, from parking issues to unsuitable bumpy ground that breaks wheelchairs, to negotiating crowds, poor views, and personal care issues. Carrie mentioned that her son needs changing during the day: “Laying on the floor is no longer an option the older and larger he has got. It was very unusual if a mainstream event catered for this with a Mobiloo or changing places suite.”

Thinking about what provides a sense of equality and inclusivity, Carrie urged more festival organisers to visually promote inclusiveness. “Make sure you are clearly welcoming us on your website and social media,” she said. “Use photos of disabled people on your website and in your publicity. What better way to get my attention and show it is suitable for us?”

Vanessa added: “When you stop and think about all different disabilities and what they may need to enable them to attend [a music festival] and then think outside the box to how to make that happen, you have an inclusive event. It has often been a very simple change, or a small cost. But be open to everyone’s issues, accept them all as valid, even though they may not be relevant to you.” 

Some big hurdles have been addressed and practical access solutions are increasingly evident, so much so that seeing deaf or disabled people at festivals is not the rarity it was a decade ago. Thanks to guidance provided by Attitude is Everything, over 125 venues and festivals have joined the charity’s Charter of Best Practice.

The ethos of the Charter is that deaf and disabled people should be as independent as they want to be at live music events. Having tracked the state of access at events for many years, Attitude is Everything is now witnessing gathering momentum for positive changes. Organisers are improving the general infrastructure of their events and have geared themselves towards obtaining the charity’s Bronze, Silver or Gold accreditation.  

Last year the giant metal fest Download, held at the iconic Donington Park, announced major improvements. A series of practical adjustments to upgrade the festival experience for disabled access fans meant that the festival gained the Gold award, making it the most accessible edition of the event ever.

Now, viewing platforms are available across all stages, including one rotating vantage point, and BSL performance interpreters are available at the Main Stage and Zippo Encore Stage, as well as being on hand with 24 hour emergency support on site. Many of the platforms, meanwhile, have access to toilets and charging points.  

Download’s accessible campsite provides the benefit of a near 24 hour shuttle bus service and 50 wheelchair charging points available at a designated charging tent. Wondering what else is required at a music festival’s accessible campsite? Download has wheelchair accessible unisex showers and toilets, a wheelchair accessible changing places unit that features toilet with grab rail, an electric hoist, adult sized changing bed, running water, large bin and hook; standard toilets and showers; fresh water points and accessible sink; waste disposal point and a fridge for secure medication storage. Other major festivals with Gold awards include Glastonbury, Reading, Latitude, and Bluedot.

Oxfordshire’s Truck Festival, which this year will host headliners Wolf Alice, Foals and Two Door Cinema Club, was certified Bronze in 2017 then Silver in 2018. Organisers are now committed to working towards Gold, saying: “As a festival, we think all events should be accessible and we know that to truly champion accessibility and be one of the industry standard bearers, we need to strive to improve year on year and continue to meet all needs and requirements of all our customers. This is something we are fully committed to doing and will aim to improve for the third successive year and be certified Gold by Attitude is Everything.”

British Summer Time Hyde Park, a multi-day event that is set to feature sets by Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Florence and the Machine and the National, and Robbie Williams this year, recently announced that it has received Gold recognition after winning Outstanding Attitude Awards for Customer Service and Ticketing Without Barriers.

BST Hyde Park has implemented a number of measures including accessible viewing areas, roaming drinks vendors, BSL interpreters at their Great Oak Stage, plus accessible toilets at every toilet block. As well, Hearing Induction Loops are available while free personal assistant passes are on hand for ticket holders across the board.

The festival has also made strides towards including as much information as possible online. Among the facilities available pre-event are an accessible transport route to the site and a customer service team available year-round. In the future, meanwhile, plans are in place for guided tours for those requiring additional help in making their way around the festival.

With Rag’n’Bone Man, Wolf Alice and Nile Rodgers and Chic poised to roll up this summer, Standon Calling festival in Hertfordshire holds Attitude is Everything Silver accreditation. And, by implementing strategies to improve access, the festival has seen a strong impact on ticket sales.

Rob Lee, Standon Calling’s Accessibility Manager told Stereoboard: “Since 2016 the number of deaf and disabled ticket holders has increased by 50%, and rising still. It’s really pleasing to see that our audience who do have access requirements return year on year and recommend us to friends of theirs who also have access requirements.

“The improvements that we’ve made, paired with achieving Silver sign off from Attitude is Everything, has definitely had a positive impact on ticket sales which we’re continuing to see this year. In 2018 we had requests from 60-plus different ticket holders to use the access facilities at Standon Calling and we’re close to surpassing that number this year with two months still to go until the festival.”

In a time of digital streaming, live music events provide fundamental revenue for the industry. In a message highlighting economic impact, Attitude is Everything stated: “Over 3.7 million deaf and disabled people experience live music each year, and as accessibility improves, this number keeps growing.  Promoters that work with Attitude is Everything typically report a significant rise in ticket sales to Deaf and disabled customers—often by more than 100%.

“Over 114,000 disabled people attended venues and festivals that are signed up to the Charter of Best Practice last year generating £5.4m worth of ticket and concessionary sales. Improving access isn’t just the right thing to do—it means more tickets sold and a more resilient live music industry.”

Music knows no boundaries; its listeners shouldn’t either. When we asked Lee what he thought the accessible festival would look like in five years he said: “In future I’d like to think that people with access requirements can feel more confident in being able to attend festivals. We’ve had attendees in past years come for the day to try it out, then having seen the access facilities available they’ll join us for the whole weekend the following year. We firmly believe music and festivals are for everyone and strongly encourage other festivals, events and venues to get involved in improving their accessibility.”

And what was the most memorable festival moment so far this year for Festability’s Vanessa? “For me, it was seeing a group of lads clearly all with learning difficulties, having a beer in a completely supportive, safe and non-judgemental environment,” she said. If attitude has anything to do with it, this will be the story for all future music festivals.

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